The Character History as a set element

31 Jul

At our first Sweeney Todd rehearsal, the director gave us a homework assignment which hasn’t been required of me since the days when I actually had – well – homework. It was that old standby of Acting I instructors everywhere, the character history.
I must confess I sort of balked at the project at first. Not on the basis of the task itself–I’ve known actors who do one for every role they play who find it very useful. More so in it’s very nature as an assignment, i.e., something one HAS to do.
I’ve always felt that the creating a character history, like any preparation ritual, should be at the discretion of the actor. I also questioned it’s usefulness in this particular show and especially at this particular point in the rehearsal process.

Before I get lectured by the Stanislavsky people, please note that to me, there’s a clear distinction between character history and the Moment Before. I support the MB unequivocally, as I do all the 12 steps (Come to think of it, I support the other 12 steps too…but I digress.) The MB is not a preparation ritual like the history, and when used properly is effective every time for every actor. Not so with the history, which may be invaulable to one person and a complete waste of time to the next.

In fact, its usefulness may vary from show to show, or even character to character within the same show. Sweeney Todd is a good example of the later, where the fleshed out principal roles contrast with the faceless ensemble. This history can be a good tool to put a face and a purpose to the horde.

All these thoughts occured to me while the director was explaining the assignment. His version was a bit of a twist though, as in addition to imagining basic facts about ourselves (name, social class, etc), we were to describe what we were doing 24 hours before our first appearance on stage with extra emphasis on the enviroment of the Victorian London streets. What were the roads like that we walked on to get here? What kind of sounds did we hear around us? What did it smell like (seeing as how there was no sewer system in London until the end of the 19th century, it couldn’t have been very pleasant)?

Giving it more thought later, it’s a really interesting approach. This particular kind of history seems like it might do less to create and distinguish characters and more to establish a mood and an atmosphere. The former is the actor’s job and the later is, of course, the director’s job. There’s lots of ways to establish a mood–set, costumes, lights–and I think using the characters, especially the relatively undefined ensemble, is something of an untapped resource. And since our space is in-the-round, limiting some of the regular go-to options mentioned above, the “people” element might be more emphasized than ever. He gave us a week to complete it, and at the last moment, mentioned sort of vaguely that we ought not to get too set on whatever we wrote.

Well, it’s no secret I love writing. I did my history the next day. In order to do it, I did a bit of research on Victorian London, everything from the main types of business to the climate to the roles of women. It occured to me that what I was doing might be termed dramaturgy as well.

So directors, take note. Enhancing your stage picture can be accomplished by a simple twist to ye olde character history. Just please–don’t call it homework.

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One Response to “The Character History as a set element”

  1. Danielle Bailey Miller August 30, 2013 at 4:56 pm #

    How fun. Sorry I read this 4 years too late 😦

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